CINCINNATI -- As he does after every game, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow sat in front of his locker and pondered what had just happened.
Seven months after the Bengals made an unlikely run to the Super Bowl, Burrow was going over Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in which he threw for just 199 pass yards while being sacked six times. In the visiting locker room at AT&T Stadium, Burrow sat introspectively, looking to see if there was anything differently he could have done to help the reigning AFC champions avoid back-to-back losses.
“Oh and two is tough, but it’s no panic,” Burrow, who completed 24 of 36 passes and posted a QBR of 48.4, said after the game. "We’ve lost two games in a row before, we lost two games in a row several times last year. Lot of football left to be played.”
Through two games, the Bengals (0-2) are 21st in the NFL in points per drive and next to last in yards per play. The latter statistic indicates just how difficult things have been for an offense that ranked seventh in that category last season. Cincinnati’s offense has been in a funk that has ensnared everyone on the team -- including Burrow.
“I think as a unit, we just need to continue to improve and score more points,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked about Burrow on Wednesday.
Much of Cincinnati’s problems in 2022 involve the team’s offensive line, which is still ranked in the bottom quarter of the NFL in pass block win rate despite four new starters on the five-man unit. Center Ted Karras, one of the new additions, said on Monday that the offensive line needs to make Burrow feel more comfortable in the pocket. Behind his new line, Burrow has been sacked 13 times thus far -- a pace that would see him break the NFL record for most times sacked in a season (David Carr, 76, in 2002) and double his total from a season ago (51).
While much of the early sack totals could be contributed to facing two of the NFL's premier pass rushers in the Pittsburgh Steelers' T.J. Watt and Dallas' Micah Parsons, the numbers when Burrow isn’t under duress show the issue is more than the offensive line. When Burrow wasn’t pressured in 2021, he was second in the NFL in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), according to ESPN Stats and Information. In a small sample size in 2022, Burrow is 25th. On throws of 15 air yards or more without pressure, the difference in Burrow’s CPOE from last year to this year is 23.1%.
“Obviously we just haven't played up to our standards so far,” Burrow said when asked about the difference between this year and last year.
The Bengals' offense boasts two 1,000-yard receivers (Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins), a 1,000-yard rusher (Joe Mixon) and Burrow, who has been known for elite accuracy since his final season at LSU. But the unit has been mired in the muck, much as it was during last year’s postseason run, in early 2022. The Bengals' pass block win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen, has only slightly improved from 30th in the NFL to 25th. And Mixon, who was third in the NFL in rushing last season, has the lowest rushing yards against expectation of any running back when running against formations with six or few defenders near the line of scrimmage. Meaning, he's gaining the fewest yards of any running back in what should be favorable running conditions.
“Our level of execution isn’t at the standard that we think it should be, that we believe it is, that I think everybody in our locker room thinks it should be,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. “Joe is a part of that.
“Everybody can play better. We can coach better. We can scheme better. We can play better.”
Following the Dallas loss, Callahan and Burrow both noted the increased amount of “Tampa 2” defenses that the Bengals have faced this season. That type of a “Cover 2” formation features two players each protecting a deep half of the field and another defender taking up a zone underneath them. Callahan said he’s seen more variations of Tampa 2 in Cincinnati’s first two games than he’s seen in the last 10 years.
“People just know how to adjust to us now,” Chase said following the loss to the Cowboys. “I feel like we need to learn how to make more adjustments in the game. Everybody knows what we’re going to do now.”
Despite all of the collective struggles in the first two weeks, Cincinnati has taken each contest down to the final play of the game, losing on a game-ending field goal to both the Cowboys and the Steelers.
Sunday’s road game against the New York Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS) provides Burrow and the Bengals another chance to jump-start their offense and shake off the early-season malaise that has plagued the unit.
“We’ve got great players, great coaches understanding our plan,” Burrow said. “We know what we need to fix it.”